By Jeremy, an Ex-Christian Scientist Group editor/writer. This is part of our on-going series about people who have left Christian Science for a new spiritual path. Find other related posts under the tag, ‘other spiritual paths’.
In March 2009, my mother died after a short battle with an unknown illness. Later that same year in December, my father died after a seven year battle with what turned out to be heart failure. Neither of my parents sought medical attention for their ailments, and they both suffered immensely in their last days. These were the events that gave me my final push out of Christian Science.
Like the vast majority of people who are or were ever adherents of Christian Science, I was born into it: third-generation on both sides of my family. While I always harboured doubts about Christian Science, and never witnessed any dramatic ‘healings’, I largely immersed myself in the culture. It was always my comfort zone, weird as that may seem. I always did everything I could do to make it ‘work’, but I never really saw it work. It took the abysmal failure of Christian Science to heal my parents to finally make me realize that my life-long doubts had a basis in truth.
It was shortly after my mother’s death that I was introduced to an Indigenous sweat-lodge ceremony by an old friend from my high school days with whom I had reconnected on-line. Her own father had died only a few months earlier, so we were walking down a similar path. She had mentioned this ceremony in passing in a comment, and I asked her about it. She didn’t say much, but told me to research it myself, which I did. I’ve always been curious about other spiritual/religious paths, especially Indigenous spirituality, and this looked interesting to me. I grew up in Tsleil-Waututh territory, and the culture of the Coast Salish people (of which they are a part) was something that had always been around me, and I had always felt an innate connection with it that I couldn’t explain, and deep respect for it, even though as a child my knowledge was limited. I asked my friend if I could attend with her when I came out to be with my Dad, as she lived near where my parents had lived–and where I now live, and that became my introduction to the spiritual path I now walk, a path that is often referred to as the Red Road.
The sweat-lodge ceremony…
Briefly, I’ll explain what I can of what a sweat-lodge ceremony is. First and most importantly, I need to state that I am not an Indigenous person on this land (North America, or as many Indigenous people call it, Turtle Island). My ancestry is European (Irish, Scottish, and English). I am a ‘settler’ on this land. I state this because in Indigenous culture, your ancestry and who your ancestors are is an important part of your identity, and it is part of how you introduce yourself. Also, it is important that the perspective I speak from, and my status on this land are clearly understood and acknowledged. I speak only for myself and my own experience, and only from my own perspective.
A sweat-lodge ceremony is conducted in a structure known as the ‘lodge’, which is usually a dome-shaped structure that is tall enough for you to sit, but not stand–you enter humbly, on your hands and knees. The ceremony consists of usually four rounds, each with its own focus–which is different in each lodge, depending on the person pouring (the term for running a lodge), and the purpose of the lodge. In each round, a number of heated rocks (usually known as ‘grandfathers’) are brought in and water is poured on them. During the ceremony, the lodge is closed, and it is pitch-dark. You are not distracted by anything visual, it becomes extremely warm, and your thoughts become very focused. There is usually a break between each round, where you can go outside to cool off.
I am not entirely sure where the sweat-lodge ceremony originates, and there is a fair amount of information on-line. Many nations throughout Turtle Island have similar ceremonies of their own or have adopted forms of the ceremony from other nations. From what I understand, the ceremony I have become familiar with, and what has become most common, has its origins with the Lakota people from the Great Plains region of North America. There is also evidence of similar ceremonies in cultures in other parts of the world as well.
My initial experiences…
The sweat lodge is a very sacred ceremony, and because of that, I can’t specifically discuss what happens there outside of the circle of people who are present at the ceremony–even my own experiences. It’s not that there is some deep dark secret, it is to preserve the sacredness or sanctity of the ceremony, and the privacy of what is shared and experienced there.
What I can talk about is what it has done for me. It brought me tremendous healing of the grief and trauma surrounding the circumstances of my parents’ deaths. It brought me comfort, understanding, and a fellowship of people who supported me in my journey, and most importantly (and quite unlike my experience in Christian Science), validation of the grief, anger, and other emotions I was feeling. I came to realize that grief is a natural and necessary part of life. It is how you process traumatic events. It is actually a healthy thing. But, like anything else, it can become unhealthy if you do not process it and move through it.
The sweat lodge is what ‘grounds’ me each week. If I’ve had a stressful week, or just have a lot of stuff to work through, it is a time for me to quietly meditate or ‘defrag’ the hard-drive of my brain. I feel re-connected with the Earth, and everything around me, and it brings me back to a healthy perspective.
What my path is to me…
In addition to the sweat lodge, I’ve attended and supported other ceremonies, such as the Sun Dance, and many others. What this spiritual path is to me, and I want to emphasize that this is what it is to me (I don’t speak in any way as an authority or someone with extensive knowledge–I have no right to do so), is an ancient, basic, logical, humble, and genuine spirituality. It is not filled with dogma or human interpretation. It’s me and whatever higher power I commune with, and my connection to the environment around me. Humility is at the core of this spirituality. People from many different faiths (or no particular faith) and nations have attended the lodge I go to. As for me, I consider myself to be agnostic. I go to the lodge to meditate and find my own connection to Mother Earth and the universe. I also practice other teachings I’ve received, many based on the Medicine Wheel, in my day-to-day to bring balance into my life as much as possible. It balances me. It makes sense to me. There’s nothing abstract or esoteric about it to me.
Do I believe in God? No, not really–not the Judaeo-Christian version found in the Bible–that makes no logical sense to me at all. I believe that consciousness is a form of energy, and that we’re all a part of a collective intelligence or consciousness that connects us to everyone and everything else. Is that what Indigenous spirituality teaches? Yes and no–it depends on the teachings you’re receiving, and the cultural traditions they originate from. This interpretation I have of consciousness and the universe is what I’ve come to myself through my own walk and experience. It’s not any particular teaching of any form of Indigenous spirituality.
It is important to note that there is no one singular form of Indigenous spirituality or culture. There are as many forms as there are nations, and in North America, there are over 600 nations, each as distinct from the other as French are from Germans, or Russians are from Turks. Yes, there are some common threads through many, but they are all distinct.
A couple of concepts I’ve been finding to be at the core of most teachings I’ve received, are respect and humility. Respect for everyone and everything around you: your fellow humans, animals, plants, water, air, and Earth. If we treat all with respect–taking only what we need, we all always have what we need, and we don’t destroy the environment around us. Humility to realize that we are not any better or worse, higher or lower than anyone or anything else, and that none of us knows everything or has all of the answers. I like to think that I know more today than I did yesterday, and tomorrow I will learn more.
One term I have become very familiar with, Wankan Tanka, is a term in the Lakota language that some people mistakenly think means ‘God’. There isn’t really an exact translation, but one interpretation holds that it refers to the power and sacredness that resides in everything. This is a concept of a ‘higher power’ (if you choose to call it that) that makes logical sense to me. My own conclusions on what ‘higher power’ and/or other ‘mysteries’ there may be are just the logical conclusions I have come to. Others have different perspectives, and that is a large part of what the Red Road path is–it is an individual journey that is as unique to you as your fingerprints. Yes, you are guided by teachings from Elders you connect with, but ultimately it is your own individual journey.
Evidence and logic are what guide me now, and are the only things that will change my mind. Faith does not. Faith has failed me, and it won’t get another chance. Faith will never be a part of my life again. The spiritual path I am on now is one that resonates strongly with me, it is open, accepting, and as individual to me as my fingerprints are. It simply makes sense to me.